Juvenile Justice in Virginia

What is juvenile law?

Juvenile law is criminal law pertaining to persons not considered old enough to be held responsible for criminal acts they commit. Virginia, like most other states, has set the age for criminal accountability at 18; anyone less than 18 years of age is defined as a “juvenile.” Most laws governing juveniles are contained in Code of Virginia, Title 16.1.

What is the restorative nature of the juvenile justice system?

The juvenile justice system has a different purpose and treats juveniles differently than adults. The adult criminal justice system aims to incapacitate criminals, deter future offenders, and punish those who are convicted. In the juvenile system, rehabilitative and restorative sanctions are used much more frequently with the hope that a delinquent can be deterred from future criminality. Those juveniles who are charged with very serious crimes (usually violent felonies) may be transferred to adult court. This is rare and occurs in less than 1% of juvenile cases.

How is the juvenile justice system organized in Virginia?

The Juvenile Justice system in Virginia includes not only Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court (J&DR) in each District, but law enforcement agencies, detention centers, juvenile offenders programs, and juvenile correctional facilities.

How does the juvenile justice process operate in Virginia?

The flowchart below shows the juvenile justice process in Virginia (click to enlarge).

Juvenile Court Process in Virginia

Steps in the juvenile justice process in Virginia:

1. The juvenile enters the system when an offense is reported. For some offenses, such as minor traffic violations, law enforcement officers may issue a summons to court rather than initiating the intake process.

2. At juvenile court intake, the intake officer is authorized to (a) take informal action, or (b) take formal action and file a petition.

What is a juvenile court intake officer?
A juvenile court intake officer receives and reviews complaints regarding a child’s delinquent behavior to the juvenile court, and determines whether there are enough facts to file a petition. These officers have the authority to handle these cases informally or detain the juvenile when necessary bringing the petition before a judge.

3. Informal actions may include referral to a crisis shelter, counseling, or other action to divert the case from the juvenile justice system. Diversion is sometimes used for first offenses and may involve the juvenile attending an educational program offered through the court.

4. If the intake officer decides to take formal action and file a petition, the intake officer will also determine whether the juvenile should be detained or released to his or her parents or guardians. The decision is based on the juvenile’s risk to self or community and risk of flight.

What is detention?
Detention involves physically restraining or confining of an individual in a locked facility. In Virginia, a judge, intake officer, or magistrate may detain a juvenile for reasons prescribed by law. Detention is most often used to hold a juvenile pending a hearing. Juveniles are typically held in detention centers in Virginia.

5. If the decision is made to detain the juvenile, a detention hearing is held within 72 hours in the J&DR District Court to determine the need for further detention.

When can someone be detained?
A judge, intake officer, or magistrate must find probable cause that the juvenile has either committed a serious crime or violated conditions of his or her probation or parole, and there is clear and convincing evidence that releasing the juvenile would be a clear and substantial threat to the person or property of others or to the juvenile’s life or health, the juvenile has threatened to runaway, or is a fugitive from another state.

What is a detention center?
Detention centers, sometimes called detention homes, temporarily hold delinquents in secure custody pending court hearings. While at a detention center, detainees participate in structured programs, including school and recreational activities. Detained juveniles also receive medical and mental health screenings and services, may participate in religious activities, and may have supervised visits with parents or guardians. Detention is used to ensure juveniles are present for court without harming themselves or others while awaiting a court date. Under certain circumstances, a judge may sentence a juvenile to a detention center for up to 180 days as a sanction after the juvenile is found guilty of an offense.

6. A preliminary hearing is held to ensure the case has enough merit to continue. If no probable cause exists, the case is dismissed. If cause is determined, the case moves to the adjudicatory hearing.

7. Also during this preliminary phase, a transfer hearing may be held to decide whether a case should be transferred to Circuit Court for trial. Transfer may occur when a juvenile, 14 years of age or older, is alleged to have committed an especially serious crime and it is decided the juvenile should be tried as an adult.

Under what circumstances can a juvenile be tried as an adult?
If a juvenile is 14 years or older and charged with a felony offense, the Commonwealth may ask the juvenile court to transfer the case to the circuit court for trial as an adult. In most cases, the transfer decision is within the discretion of the court after considering the juvenile’s age, the seriousness and number of offenses, prior record with the court, whether he or she has previously escaped, any degree of mental impairment, school record, and mental, emotional, and physical maturity. If the court decides that the juvenile can best be treated in the juvenile system, it can deny the transfer.

The Commonwealth’s Attorneys has the discretion to transfer juveniles charged with violations of certain gang offenses and repeat violations of certain drug offenses to the circuit court for trial as an adult. Also, juveniles charged with an offense defined as an act of violence, if previously adjudicated delinquent of an act of violence, are automatically transferred to the circuit court for trial as an adult. However, if the charge is murder or aggravated malicious wounding, the court must transfer the case for trial as an adult. If the charge is one of several enumerated violent felonies, the discretion to transfer the case lies solely with the Commonwealth’s Attorney.

8. At the adjudicatory hearing, witnesses and testimony are presented much like an adult trial and the judge decides whether the juvenile is guilty. If the juvenile is found not guilty, the case is dismissed. If the juvenile is found guilty, a dispositional hearing is held. Frequently, judges order a pre-disposition report to be prepared to assist in determining an appropriate disposition. The pre-disposition report contains extensive background information about the juvenile, his or her family and community environment, his or her school record, and services he or she may need.

What is an adjudicatory hearing?
The word adjudicate means to judge or pass judgment. In an adjudicatory hearing, the court hears the evidence in a case and determines whether the allegations contained in the complaint are supported by the evidence. In criminal cases, there is a determination of whether the defendant is guilty.

9. At the dispositional hearing, the judge decides appropriate sanctions and services. Sanction means a penalty for not complying with a law or other rule. The judge may impose community sanctions such as warnings, restitution, or fines. The juvenile may also be placed on probation, required to participate in programs sponsored by the court or community agencies, or placed in post-dispositional detention.

What is a dispositional hearing?
The word disposition means the manner in which a case is settled or resolved. In a dispositional hearing, the court considers and selects penalties and services appropriate for an offender. It is important to remember that the juvenile justice system is concerned not only with punishment, but also with rehabilitation. For example, a court may not only place an offender on probation and order restitution, but also order him or her to participate in counseling or another program to address underlying problems.

What is restitution?
Restitution describes the act of restoration. It means an offender is required to repay money to the victim or take other action to restore the victim to his or her status before the criminal act. For example, someone who destroys the property of another may be required to pay the cost of repair or replacement, such as when a school building has been vandalized. The basic purpose of restitution is to achieve fairness.

What does probation mean?
Probation means the offender is allowed a period of time to show he or she has learned from his or her mistakes and can behave. During this period, offenders are supervised by the court, obey rules of probation, and report to a probation officer who closely monitors conduct. If an offender abides by the conditions, he or she is released from probation. If an offender does not abide by the proscribed conditions, he or she may be brought before a judge, who may impose more severe penalties.

Once the requirements have been met, the juvenile is released by the court. The judge may also decide to commit the juvenile to the Department of Juvenile Justice, where he or she will undergo psychological, educational, social, and medical evaluations and be placed in a residential facility or a juvenile correctional center. Juveniles who complete their commitment and return to their home communities are usually supervised by the court.

What is a juvenile correctional center?
A juvenile correctional center is a place where a juvenile committed to the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice receives 24-hour supervision, education, treatment services, recreational services, and a variety of special programs.

10. A case may be sent into the appeals process following the dispositional hearing. The Circuit Court may also receive a case through direct indictment.


More in-depth information about J&DR Courts is available in this fact sheet from the Virginia Supreme Court.

At the state level, the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) has primary responsibility for Virginia’s system of juvenile justice services.

What are Court Services Units (CSUs)?

At the local level, access to the juvenile justice system is through the local court service unit (CSU). Thirty-five CSUs serve the Judicial Districts throughout Virginia. Descriptions and contact information for each of the 35 CSUs can be found on the DJJ website. CSUs assist with all steps in the juvenile justice process.

What are the essential functions of the CSU throughout the Commonwealth?

Juvenile Intake – Intake services are provided 24 hours a day at each of the 35 court service units across the state. The intake officer on duty, or on call after business hours, has the authority to receive, review, and process complaints. Based on the information gathered, a determination is made whether a petition should be filed with the juvenile court and, if so, whether the juvenile should be released to the parents or detained pending a court hearing. The CSU provides diversion and referral to other community resources to most first-time offenders.

Investigations and Reports – Social histories make up the majority of the reports that CSU personnel complete. These court-ordered investigations describe the social adjustment of the youth and provide timely, relevant, and accurate data. This information helps the court select the most appropriate disposition for the case and provides the basis for the CSU to develop appropriate services for the juvenile and the family. Other reports and investigations completed by CSU personnel include case summaries to the Family Assessment and Planning Teams, commitment packets for the Reception and Diagnostic Center, interstate compact reports, transfer reports, parole transition reports, ongoing case documentation, and transitional services referral packets.

Domestic Relations – In addition to handling delinquency and Child in Need of Service (CHINS)/Supervision complaints, CSUs provide intake services for domestic relations complaints. These complaints include non-support, family abuse, adjudication of custody (permanent and temporary), abuse and neglect, termination of parental rights, visitation rights, paternity, and emancipation. In some CSUs, services such as treatment referral, supervision, and counseling are provided in adult cases of domestic violence.

Custody Investigations – Although the majority of custody investigations for the court are performed by the local Department of Social Services’ staff, some CSUs also perform investigations to provide recommendations to the court on parental custody and visitation based on the best interests of the youth and defined criteria in the Virginia Code. This investigation includes an extensive review of the home environment, examining the background, role, and relationship of the youth’s parent(s) or caretaker(s) along with any individuals living in the home.

Supervised Probation – Supervised Probation is the most frequently used sentence for juveniles adjudicated as guilty of a charge filed against them. This approach focuses on the principles of community protection (public safety), accountability, and competency development.

Parole Services – Upon release from a juvenile correction center (JCC) or private placement setting, individuals are provided parole services to assist in the transition back to the community. Parole officers are assigned to offenders to provide case management services, broker appropriate transitional services, and monitor the offender’s adjustment to the community. These individuals may receive family and individual counseling, referral to other community services, vocational services, or specialized educational services.

What is the procedure for re-enrolling students who have been in juvenile correctional facilities?

The Code of Virginia § 22.1-17.1 establishes the responsibility of the Board of Education, in cooperation with the Department of Juvenile Justice to publicize regulations for the re-enrollment in the public schools of youth who have been in the custody of the Department of Juvenile Justice. The regulations promote the exchange of educational information concerning students among the Departments of Juvenile Justice and Correctional Education (DCE), local and regional detention homes, and local education agencies (LEAs).

The regulations are intended to:

  • best serve all parties, including the student, their family, schools, and the criminal justice system;
  • coordinate the sharing of information between entities;
  • provide the best possible education experience to juveniles.


The procedures for re-enrollment, its timelines, and FAQs for various audiences are set forth on the Virginia Department of Education’s website.

How are juvenile criminal records expunged?

Expungement of criminal records is a key element of juvenile justice. Code of Virginia § 16.1-306 defines how and when juvenile records are expunged. If a juvenile is convicted of an offense prior to turning 18, their non-felony records are automatically expunged when they turn 19. There are a number of exceptions but for most minor crimes, juvenile records are purged.

What do the terms “Child in Need of Services” and “Child in Need of Supervision” mean?

A Child in Need of Services is a child whose behavior, conduct, or condition poses a risk of harm to himself or another person. A child who is alleged to be abused or neglected is typically considered a child in need of services.

A Child in Need of Supervision (CHINS) is a child who is habitually absent from school (truant) or who abandons his family or guardian (runaway) in a manner that requires intervention by the court to protect the child's welfare.

VDOE Discipline, Crime and Violence Definitions

The Virginia Department of Education updates DCV Definitions annually.

For more information on reporting, visit VDOE's School Safety section.

Code of Virginia

The Virginia General Assembly has posted the entire Code of Virginia online for web searching. You can perform a search by using key word(s), phrases or section numbers. You can also use the Table of Contents to view all Titles, Chapters, and Sections.

To explore the searchable Code of Virginia, go to the Virginia General Assembly Legislative Information System (LIS).